Scavenger hopes to solve origins of smoking pipe

By Scott L. Miley
Anderson, Indiana (AP) October 2012

James Laswell was wading through White River and searching for scrap he could resell or reuse.

A scavenger for decades, he knew that collectors want old bottles and that metal can be shaped into yard ornaments.

On July 16, the river near Anderson was more shallow than normal due to the drought-like summer. The sun glistened across the water, enabling Laswell to see the mud just 2 feet under the surface.

“I’ve been over that spot year after year, but the water happened to be low enough that ... I could see the bottom,” said Laswell, 44.

He reached into the muck and pulled out an elongated tube.

“I thought it was a black powder pistol,” he told The Herald Bulletin ( ).

About 10 inches long, the piece was stone with a small bowl attached. On closer look, one end was shaped like an animal head, a turtle perhaps. It resembled a smoking pipe.

Within a few hours, he was talking to a specialist who deals in ancient Indian pipes. Laswell offered to sell it for $125,000. The dealer didn’t buy the pipe, but he didn’t say the price was far-fetched.

Laswell, a self-employed carpenter, won’t say exactly where he was scavenging that day. But upriver from his find is Mounds State Park, home to 10 earthworks believed to have been built by the Adena or Hopewell Indian cultures. The state park’s main feature, the Great Mound, was built around 160 B.C., experts say.

In the other direction, near County Road 800 West, there’s a former Indian burial ground.

Maybe Laswell’s find – appearing to be carved as an effigy to an animal – fell from an Adena canoe. Maybe it floated down river after a Hopewell ceremony. Laswell could only speculate on the pipe’s origins so he took to the Internet. An effigy pipe discovered in Kentucky with a more pronounced animal head and body was selling for $47,500. Yet, a stone effigy pipe from Missouri in the 1800s was going for $56 on eBay.

The prices varied so widely that Laswell’s best hope was to get his pipe authenticated.

He showed the pipe to Michele Greenan, director of archaeology at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, and Kevin Nolan, an archaeologist who works in the Department of Anthropology at Ball State University in Muncie.

“I just want an archaeologist to be able to tell me more about where it came from,” Laswell said.

Nolan said tests need to be conducted on the pipe to verify its authenticity. Nolan said he would help pursue a grant to conduct isotopic tests to confirm the age of the item.

Greenan isn’t in a position to quote a price but said she believes Laswell’s claim that he found the object.

“It may be that we can never fully validate it,” she said. “We want to try and keep going and take every avenue to validate this. It’s beautiful.”

She is quite familiar with effigy pipes. The first artifact ever recorded in the Indiana State Museum collection, in the 1800s, is an Indian wolf-headed pipe found in Kentucky.

Laswell is well-known for his river finds.

As a kid, he walked the banks with his dad, who sold animal pelts.

Last year, Laswell was collecting bait when a piece of an iron drainage pipe fell from the Truman Bridge and almost hit him in the head.

At his eastside home, he keeps an assortment of the glassware he’s recovered – from cologne bottles to an automobile head lamp. The most money he ever earned by selling a pop bottle was $200, and that was for a decades-old Coca-Cola Christmas bottle from a Kokomo plant.

Many times he walks the river with neighbor Larry Lawson.

On July 16, he was with his fiancee, Stephanie Hart.

But she was feeding fish and was away from Laswell. He yelled at her and showed his find. Then he went to Lawson’s.

“I wasn’t surprised ... but I was. I mean that was awesome,” recalled Lawson. "This guy has put thousands of hours in, thousands of hours, not just a few, thousands. Since he was 7 or 8 years old with his dad, he walked the river.”

At 1 p.m. that day, Laswell and Lawson called an Ohio collector. By 4 p.m., the dealer was examining the pipe through an eye loop. The Anderson men figured Laswell had been scrapping along the river for more than 25 years, so they threw out a number equal to $5,000 for each year of hunting. The dealer didn’t dispute the price but didn’t make the purchase.

Whatever the future outcome, Laswell and Lawson seem proud of their scavenging.

Lawson said, “This guy right here is probably solely most responsible for cleaning up our rivers and trees, getting scrap iron, old car rims, fenders, motor blocks, stuff like that. He cleaned out the river one time and it was phenomenal, all the rusty remnants of stuff people had thrown away. ... It’s hard, hard work.”

Laswell hopes he’ll have an answer by May 28. That’s the day he is to marry Stephanie Hart. He would like the ceremony to be near the spot where he found the pipe.